How to Read a Food Label
You’re standing in the middle of the grocery store aisle, staring at the Nutrition Facts labels of two similar products, trying to figure out which one is the better choice. Sometimes, the confusion becomes too much, and you just toss one of them in your cart so you can move on.
Nutrition Facts labels are meant to be your friend – to help you make healthy, informed decisions about your food. While you won’t find Nutrition Facts labels on fresh produce or meats, they’re required on all packaged foods made in the US and imported from other countries. Check out this guide to help you navigate the Nutrition Facts label and make all your grocery trips a breeze.
The Nutrition Facts label looks like a lot of information at first, but just take it one line at a time.
Image Source: FDA
1. Serving Size
The serving size is a great place to start when evaluating a Nutrition Facts label. In fact, it helps the rest of the label make sense. The number of calories and amount of each nutrient shown on the Nutrition Facts label are based on the serving size. Notice that the serving size in this example is one cup. So, if you eat two cups, you’d multiply every value on this label by two. On the flip side, if you only eat ½ cup, you’d divide everything by two (or multiply by ½).
Keep in mind that the serving size isn’t a recommendation of how much you should eat, but rather an estimate of how much people typically eat.
Calories are just a unit of measurement – they’re used to measure energy. Just like inches measure length or degrees Fahrenheit measure temperature, calories tell you how much energy you can get from a particular food. Everyone has different calorie needs to help their body function efficiently and propel them through their daily activities. Talk with a local registered dietitian if you’re curious about your own calorie requirements.
This section is the “meat and potatoes” (or plant-based protein and potatoes) of the Nutrition Facts label. It’s where you’ll get most of the valuable information to help you make the best food choices for yourself.
Fats are an essential part of your diet. They help give your body energy, support healthy cell function, and help produce important hormones.
The type of fat you choose is crucial, though. Nutrition Facts labels show total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat. Try to limit foods high in saturated fat and trans fat, and swap them out with foods rich in unsaturated fats to support heart health.
But the Nutrition Facts label doesn’t show unsaturated fat content – how do you know how much unsaturated fat a serving of food has? It takes a little mental math, but you can do it. Just add up the saturated fat and trans fat, subtract it from the total fat, and you’re left with the amount of unsaturated fat.
In the past, people thought that dietary cholesterol was bad for heart health. But more recent evidence has revealed that dietary cholesterol doesn’t have much of an effect on blood cholesterol levels or overall heart health for most people. However, high amounts of dietary cholesterol may contribute to higher blood cholesterol in certain people. Talk with your healthcare provider to help figure out how closely you should monitor your dietary cholesterol intake.
While your body needs a small amount of sodium to function properly, too much sodium can be hard on your heart. The American Heart Association recommends limiting sodium to 2,300 mg per day, or 1,500 mg per day for those with existing heart concerns.
Carbohydrates are your body’s favorite energy source – they’re an essential part of your diet to keep you feeling your best. In addition to total carbohydrates, the Nutrition Facts label highlights fiber, total sugar, and added sugar.
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that your body can’t digest, but that doesn’t mean it’s not beneficial. It’s quite the opposite. Fiber helps support healthy blood sugar levels, heart health, satiety, gut health, and a healthy weight. You’ve got a lot to gain by choosing high-fiber foods.
There are two different types of sugar: natural sugars and added sugars. Natural sugars are naturally present in the food, like fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose). On the other hand, added sugars are added during processing (like in soda) or preparation (like adding sugar to your coffee). It’s best to avoid foods high in added sugar.
Proteins are the building blocks of the body. They help build and repair tissues and play a huge role in immune health. Just like calories, individual protein needs vary, and you may need more if you’re trying to build muscle mass, lose weight, or heal from injury.
Four other micronutrients are required on the Nutrition Facts label: vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium. Many Americans have trouble getting enough of these nutrients, so check out the Nutrition Facts label to help boost your intake.
4. Percent Daily Value (%DV)
It’s hard to know how much of each nutrient you should get each day. That’s why the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) created Daily Values (DVs). Although everyone has different nutrient needs, DVs help give you a ballpark estimate.
The Nutrition Facts label displays %DV – this is a great tool to give you insight on whether a food is low or high in a nutrient and can help you make quick, informed food choices.
- 5% DV or less means a product is low in that nutrient
- 20% DV or more means a product is high in that nutrient
But keep in mind, a high %DV isn’t always a good thing, and a low %DV isn’t always a bad thing. In general, look for foods that are high in these nutrients:
- Vitamin D
And look for foods that are low in these nutrients:
- Saturated fat
- Added sugar
The %DV makes it easy to compare different products and make the best choice for you and your health.
5. The Ingredient List
In addition to the Nutrition Facts label, there’s also an ingredient list. Ingredients are listed by weight from highest to lowest. Here are a few tips to help you make sense of the ingredient label:
- Look for products that list whole foods in the first three ingredients. For example, if you have the choice between a granola bar that lists rolled oats, dates, and cashews as the first three ingredients, and another that lists rolled oats, sugar, and corn syrup, which one would you choose? Your gut instinct is probably telling you to choose the first option, and it’s likely the better choice. While the first three ingredients don’t tell you everything, they do make up a larger portion of the product.
- Opt for products with a short ingredient list. In general, the longer the list, the more processed the food. Heavily processed foods tend to have higher levels of added sugar, saturated fat, and sodium.
- Learn the code words for sugar, sodium, and trans fat. As you breeze through the ingredients list, these nutrients may be undercover. They may try to trick you with a different name, but they still have the same identity, so be watchful if you’re trying to limit them.
The Nutrition Facts label is chock-full of valuable information to help you make the best food choices every day. Gone are the days of frustration and confusion. Now you’re ready to stroll through the grocery store with confidence, prepared with the label reading tools you need to make healthy, informed decisions for you and your family.